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Chris Spence’s Debt to the Black Community

No one can expect Spence alone to own the unfulfilled promise of the socially-constructed group of people we call black.

Photo by {a href=""}Louis Tam{/a}, from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Photo by {a href=””}Louis Tam{/a}, from the {a href=””}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

As instances of plagiarism continue to pile up at former TDSB director Chris Spence’s door, many of those who trusted him to be a strong leader are angry and disappointed at the depths of his poor conduct.

Some are also arguing that Spence should be especially ashamed of himself for disappointing black people who viewed him as a role model.

In an op-ed published last week, former CTV and Toronto Star reporter Desmond Brown all but suggested that Spence’s plagiarism would make civil rights heroes who fought for racial equality roll over in their graves. I understand Brown’s disappointment with Spence, but I don’t understand or accept his outlandish conclusion, on behalf of black people, that beyond Spence’s actual commission of plagiarism, his “real crime was to ignore our history.” This is a shocking and dangerous overreaction—a reinforcement of a racist worldview that holds black people chiefly responsible for society’s ingrained anti-black stereotypes and prejudices.

“Here’s a guy who defied the stereotype that blacks aren’t fit to hold positions of power,” Brown lamented in his piece, titled “TDSB’s Chris Spence: The role model who failed.” He is clearly distraught at the loss of “someone I could have looked up to when I was a student, possibly averting me from an early career as a cab driver.”

But the responsibility of ensuring that black kids grow up with a sense of belonging and self-confidence falls on society as a whole, not simply on presumed black heroes like Spence.

We must therefore reject Brown’s conclusion that “Spence’s actions are an affront to everyone who fought for and demanded equality.” Injustice, plain and simple, is the affront—and to every person, living or dead, who has longed for equality. To err is human, even when you are black. If we construe one black person’s failings as a betrayal of all who share their complexion and ancestry, we are simply reinforcing the notion that some people can and should be judged differently because of the colour of their skin.

Given how thoughtfully many black social justice crusaders have explored the complex nature of identity, Brown’s reduction of this case to simple shame over black failure is particularly unhelpful. Consider W.E.B. Du Bois, who argued in his ever-relevant The Souls of Black Folk that “[i]t is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Brown’s most revealing admission is that, upon initially hearing of the allegations against Spence, “[a]s a black, my first inclination was to defend him.” Many black Canadians have had a similar experience watching the beginning of a news report about a terrible crime, and hoping the accused is not black. That unfair burden is too great for racialized people to bear together, never mind any one person individually. It is also a double-standard our white peers are not expected to follow.

Brown argues that, in addition to apologizing to all students for his conduct, “Spence should have also added an apology to the black community which he has let down and embarrassed.” Would Brown similarly argue that Margaret Wente, who recently feigned an apology for what she described as “journalistic lapses,” (i.e. plagiarism) should issue a separate apology to white people for embarrassing them? Would he say that Lance Armstrong let down the white community by using banned substances during his cycling career?

No, Wente and Armstrong are rightly judged for their actions as individuals—no one presumes to evaluate all whites through their respective conduct. It is our collective shame that we cannot say the same for black people in our society.

We have to be honest about the finite impact black role modelling can have in a society so skewed against black people. This is why Brown’s comments are so troubling: they place an inordinate amount of blame on Spence for ruining a promise he could never hope to deliver on his own.

People like Chris Spence can absolutely serve as role models, but theirs is a supporting role in a feature film starring systemic racism, that veritable evil which informs people of African heritage we are born with something to prove. A collective cultural blind-spot pushes us to endow the black TDSB director with racial responsibility we would deem preposterous for someone belonging to the (functionally invisible) white race.

As a candidate for Toronto City Council in 2006, I participated in a debate on equity issues. Candidates had to submit our responses to debate questions in writing before the actual event. The debate organizer, who was critical of my written responses, accidentally copied my campaign on an e-mail to her assistant. “His answers are just as poor as the rest,” the organizer said of my submission, “which is a shame because he is black and should know better.”

There is a line, at once real and imaginary, that divides the struggles of black people from our non-black brothers and sisters. Whiteness remains the unidentified backdrop for blacks like Brown and myself to discuss unfulfilled black potential, as our white-dominated society looks on. We would all be better served by broadening the conversation beyond the presumed “black community,” to include every person who cares—or ought to care—about smashing the racial barriers that needlessly continue to divide us.


  • nosfartYOU

    This is a fantastic article!!

  • tomwest

    Why does anyone care about Chris Spence’s skin colour???

    • NOYB12345

      Many minorities and women do care and they are entitled to that sentiment. When people of the same background succeed it can be very inspiring. When they fail, it brings shame. It’s the same way you feel when your brother gets his MBA – you are happy and proud because he’s part of you. If that same brother ends up in jail you can’t boast about him any longer. This skin colour brotherhood is just a bigger picture. A broader sense of that connection in a sea of “others” who seem to have all the advantages and who just aren’t connected to you, your gender or heritage in any way.

      • Wally

        Only to small minded people that view skin colour as this unlimited unifying force. These constructed communities (used as a way to enforce racial hierarchy) are based on nothing other than sharing a skin colour, and are a racist construct that is only applied to non-whites.
        Your conflation of family and “a skin colour brotherhood,” is not only false it is based on racist assumption, that people with the same skin colour (as long as it’s non-white) share the same values, are responsible for each other and are inseparable as individuals. This is exactly what Cole is arguing is a false construct and a tool used to create stereotypes and cement the role of the “other”, putting the sole responsibility on racialized communities instead of society as a whole.

        • tyrannosaurus_rek

          “These constructed communities (used as a way to enforce racial
          hierarchy) are based on nothing other than sharing a skin colour, and
          are a racist construct that is only applied to non-whites.”

          When white people construct hierarchies for other whites, we do it based on language and religion, thankyouverymuch.

          • Wally

            Isn’t it interesting that language, religion and national origin don’t inform any division of the “Black Community” but that it is so important in how we define whites? Isn’t that kind of my point ? Thank you very much.

          • tyrannosaurus_rek

            I’m pretty sure within “the” black community there are similar not-skin-colour-based separations.

          • Wally

            Tell that to Desmond Brown and people who use the term “Black community” I’m well aware it’s not a homogenous group.

          • torontothegreat

            We’re not homogeneous, but we share a lot of the same frustrations and experiences which are exclusive to our skin colour.

            Racial profiling would be a gleaming example of something that white people don’t even think about, nor need to worry about, but that 99% of black people do.

        • NOYB12345

          Wally, I’m not sure what you are trying to say about black people who identify with other blacks, but very few of them are “small minded people that view skin colour as this unlimited unifying force.” What an insulting notion. Have a nice day and enjoy getting your last word.

          • Wally

            I was speaking specifically to you and Brown’s argument, not to black people as a whole, as you and Brown were clearly attempting to do. I was in fact arguing against painting a diverse, large group of people with tenuous connections as a homogenous “community” based on nothing other than skin colour. I’m simply saying in this case, the term community is being applied arbitrarily and in a completely irresponsible way. Spence is not responsible for “the Canadian Black Community” anymore than Armstrong or Wente are responsible for the “white community (whether that be English, protestant whites or however we want to pretend that racist constructs also apply to white people) and to argue that they are treated similarly because they are recognized as the cream of their professions ignores structural racism and the way it is applied.
            Wente and Armstrong had responsibilities as professionals to uphold a level of professionalism, just as Spence did as an educator. The difference is the implication that Spence has failed the “Black community,” (whatever that means) and that he is somehow setting black people back because of his example.

          • torontothegreat

            When you’re from a “community” that has a shortage of role models of this caliber it’s disheartening to say the least.

            White people have lots of role models this way, mostly due to socio-economic advantages of being white.

            I’m sorry you’re unable to grasp that racism does in fact exist and these constructs that have been put in place are still wholly enforced.

        • torontothegreat

          Are you a person of visible minority status?

          • Wally

            Oh I forgot only “minorities” are allowed to have opinions on “minority” issues or argue against simplistic characterizations.

          • torontothegreat

            Wow, you read all this into my question?

            I’m just curious what experience you have with being a minority and suggest that perhaps that lack of experience is what aggravates us “minorities” when people like you have opinions.

            It’s the equivalent to a hobbyist electrician telling a ticketed electrician their opinion on how they do their job.

  • NOYB12345

    Desmond Cole, your opinion is interesting and valid but so was Desmond Brown’s. Mr. Brown, who does not seek political gains as you clearly have done, spoke from the heart, for himself and for many minorities. If you are correct in your assertion that blacks should bear no shame in Spence’s failure, then you are also saying that blacks can share no pride in the Oprah Winfreys and Benjamin Carsons who have succeeded through their hard work and brilliance, against formidable odds. And THAT would be very wrong, indeed.

    • Wally

      I’m not sure where you are getting the impression that Cole thinks Brown’s opinion is invalid. He simple disagrees and does an admirable job of explaining that disagreement while not dismissing Brown’s perspective.
      The point of this is not that blacks can’t have pride or role models based on race, but that society has a clear double standard that places blame on individuals based on race.

      • NOYB12345

        Let me help you out, Wally. Read this paragraph again:

        Desmond Cole writes: I understand Brown’s disappointment with Spence, but I DON’T UNDERSTAND OR ACCEPT his OUTLANDISH conclusion, on behalf of black people, that beyond Spence’s actual commission of plagiarism, his “real crime was to ignore our history.” This is a SHOCKING and DANGEROUS OVERREACTION —a REINFORCEMENT of a RACIST WORLDVIEW that holds black people chiefly responsible for society’s ingrained anti-black stereotypes and prejudices.

        Does that seem like a man accepting another man’s opinion as valid? No, it doesn’t.

        • Wally

          I think it does, he is just saying that he disagrees and thinks Brown’s conclusion is dangerous, shocking and an overreaction. He doesn’t say anything bout him not be able to voice his opinion or demean him in any way, he simply disagrees with Brown’s conclusions based on his view of their merits. Not accepting an opinion is not rendering it invalid, and it if it was how would we ever be able to voice strong disagreement?
          How would you like Cole to voice his disagreement to something that many would agree is unfair and downright racist? Like he says, no one faults Lance Armstrong or Margaret Wente for letting down white people or providing a bad example for the white race, why should it be acceptable to do it for Spence?

          • NOYB12345

            Margaret Wente didn’t let down white people. But she certainly let down journalists who have to bear the shame and suspicion she helped bring upon them. I’m not sure if you read the comment boards but females took a major hit, too, when she was caught plagiarizing. Lance Armstrong let down elite athletes and those raising funds for cancer and other charities.

          • tyrannosaurus_rek

            Wente and Armstrong may have let down a lot of people in their respective areas, but does anyone think less of journalists as a whole because of Wente, or professional cyclists because of Armstrong?

  • Rhys S/V Alchemy

    Actually, Margaret Wente and Lance Armstrong *do* embarrass me as a so-called white person.

    Cheating when in a so-called position of privilege…very unsporting.

    By the way, Chris Spence also cheated from a position of privilege: his one-percenter income level. The colour in question is brown like a Borden.

  • Notredame

    There was also some racism against the director. What other way but to pin him with plagiarism. Saying what someone else has said in the newspaper is common and it has nothing to do with academics. Style-up you guys witchunting the Black guy for his highly paid position.

  • Sarah

    What? He was a black director… So what? Anyone who thinks Spence should apologize to HIS RACE-regardless of what he did is ignorant and has no sense. If it were a white director, would anyone even fathom that he would owe debt to the white community? Yeah… I thought so.